READY PLAYER ONE (2018) – Cinematic References Best Part of this Fantasy Tale

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I’m not a gamer. I don’t play video games, and I haven’t read the book  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and so my interest in seeing READY PLAYER ONE (2018) the new fantasy adventure by director Steven Spielberg, was purely for cinematic reasons.  That’s right. I saw this one simply because I wanted to see the movie.

So, as a movie, how does READY PLAYER ONE size up? Not bad.  For the most part, it’s a fairly entertaining two-plus hours at the movies, even if it’s telling a story that is about as compelling as a game of Donkey Kong.

The best part of READY PLAYER ONE is all the cultural cinematic references. After all, where else can you find King Kong, MechaGodzilla, and the Iron Giant all in the same movie?  Where else can you have your characters enter a world based on Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980)?  The answer is READY PLAYER ONE! These and other references and nods [including to ALIEN (1979) and LOST IN SPACE (1965-68)]  are what kept me most interested in this movie, long after I lost interest in its story.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in 2045, a time when life is so hard people need to escape from reality, and they do so by entering the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance) where pretty much anything can happen. You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever it is you want to do. So, Wade plays in this video game world as a handsomer version of himself known as Parzival.

Halliday has since died, but he’s left a challenge to all the players in the OASIS: he has left three keys inside his virtual reality world, and the player who finds all three keys will unlock the game’s secret and become controller of the entire OASIS.  Wade and his friends make it their goal to do just that, but they’d better hurry because an evil company led by a man named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has other ideas.

And that’s the story.  This one’s certainly not going to win any awards for Best Screenplay, that’s for sure.

Visually READY PLAYER ONE is a lot of fun, and Spielberg keeps the action fast, bright, and playful.  I have no problem with this part of the movie.

The cast is okay, even though they don’t have a whole lot to work with. Tye Sheridan is decent enough in the lead role as Wade/Parzival, but the character as written in this movie is rather dull, and Sheridan doesn’t really bring this young man to life.  Both his parents have died, yet this grief barely resonates in the story.

Olivia Cooke fares better as Samantha, who becomes Wade’s best friend and eventual love interest.  Samantha is also a kick-ass character who is much more interesting than Wade.  I like Cooke a lot and have been a fan since I first saw her on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) and also in the Hammer horror movie THE QUIET ONES (2014).

Ben Mendelsohn plays the cardboard villain Sorrento who acts like he walked out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon.  Mendelsohn played a much more effective villain, Orson Krennic, in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy T.J. Miller as Sorrento’s henchman I-ROk, as he provides the film’s best bits of comic relief.  Miller was recently in DEADPOOL ((2016), but I always remember him as Hud, the frightened yet frequently hilarious guy behind the camera in CLOVERFIELD (2008).

Mark Rylance, either hidden under lots of hair or CGI effects in the OASIS, is quiet and unassuming as the gaming genius Halliday, but Simon Pegg as Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow is little more than an afterthought.  These two fine actors really don’t get a whole lot of chances to do much in this movie.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, who wrote the novel, is straightforward and pretty much tells a by-the-numbers plot.  Teens have to save the world from an evil meddling company while learning about the man who created their favorite game and about themselves as well.

At times, the film feels like a cross between TRON (1982) and WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). In fact, it’s been reported that Spielberg had approached Gene Wilder to play Halliday, before the iconic comedic actor passed away.  Its nonstop video game landscape is mixed with a syrupy sweet nostalgia tale that makes for lightweight fare, as opposed to a hard-hitting fantasy adventure.

There’s not a lot of memorable dialogue either. And the action scenes, while visually stunning, were pretty tame.

READY PLAYER ONE is chock-full of fun cinematic, video game, and cultural references, especially from the 1980s, and it’s a treat for the eyes, as it’s full of colorful alternate reality landscapes, but its story is meh and often falls flat.  For example, for nearly its entire 140 minute run time, we are immersed inside its virtual reality world, yet at the end, we are treated to a message that says the real world is still more important and interesting, which after all that came before it simply sounds hollow and forced.

READY PLAYER ONE is a colorful diversion if you have 140 minutes to spare.  If not, feel free to spend some time outside instead.  In the real world.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure

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The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.

—-END—

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

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I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

—END—

 

 

Worst Movies of 2017

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I saw a bunch of movies in 2017.  Most of them were pretty darn good, as it was an excellent year for movies.  However, there were some clunkers, some films that just did not succeed.

Here are my picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2017:

10 THE DARK TOWER

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This fantasy thriller based on the epic eight novel series by Stephen King is anything but epic.  First of all, it’s a prequel. We meet a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who’s haunted by recurring bad dreams in which he sees a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) battling a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) over the fate of the world.  Jake eventually enters their world and joins the fight against the Man in Black.

For a movie based on an eight book series by Stephen King, the story it tells is about as skeletal as you can get. The film skimps on details and characterizations, and as a result it’s not very satisfying. It’s also not visually impressive. Both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are fine in their roles, but they’re not enough to save this movie, which is not awful. It’s just so sparse it’s inconsequential.

9 AMERICAN ASSASSIN

AMERICAN ASSASSIN is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable. For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp. O’Brien was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, as there are plans to turn this movie into a film series, but he’s way too young here. Michael Keaton fares better in a supporting role as CIA tough guy Stan Hurley. Its tale of a young man seeking revenge against the terrorists who murdered his girlfriend, who’s then recruited by the CIA, never rings true.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions. AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

8 BEATRIZ AT DINNER

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman named Beatriz (Salma Hayek) who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) at a dinner party one evening. I loved the plot but not the execution.

The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful, but the payoff isn’t up to snuff. There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion. On the contrary, it’s quite the head-scratcher. The film seems to be satisfied with its dinner party sequence, and like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

7 KIDNAP

KIDNAP is pretty much a nonstop chase as a mother Karla (Halle Berry) pursues the people who kidnapped her young son in broad daylight over roads, highways, and wherever they lead her.  Sounds like an intense thrill ride, but it’s not, because the filmmakers forgot one very important ingredient:  they forgot to make it believable.

Karla in her pursuit of the kidnappers causes more accidents and collateral damage than James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, yet the police aren’t anywhere to be found, except for one officer who is killed, which should have generated a massive police response. Nor are the kidnappers deterred. Karla creates an uproar within seconds of the kidnapping, so much so you’d think the kidnappers, regardless of how much money they might be paid for stealing children, would not want this kind of exposure and would dump the child and take off.  But no, they hang on, as if this particular child was the next Lindbergh baby. The screenplay by Knate Lee wastes a scary premise as the story becomes contrived within moments of Karla’s jumping into her car to chase after her son’s kidnappers.

Halle Berry is a very good actress.  She deserves to be in better movies than KIDNAP.

 

6 47 METERS DOWN

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In general, I like movies about sharks, even though most of them have been pretty bad. 47 METERS DOWN joins the list of lousy shark movies. Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico, enjoying the beaches and basically getting away from it all.  They meet a couple of fun-loving young men who convince them to take the shark cage tour under water. Lisa and Kate go underwater together in the shark cage, which I thought strange since they’re on a date and it would have made more sense for each of them to go underwater with their respective dates.  Anyway,  the line holding the cage breaks and they fall to the ocean floor, which is 47 meters down and infested with hungry sharks.

Sounds like an exciting movie, but strangely it is not.  The whole thing is all rather flat, thanks to some uninspiring direction by Johannes Roberts. The CGI created sharks don’t help.  They don’t look real. I also never felt the fear that these women should have felt.  They might have been stuck in an elevator for all I knew, rather than in a shark cage.  Their emotions were never that intense.

Considering its plot, this one is surprisingly dull throughout.

5 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

While I still enjoy the Captain Jack Sparrow character played by Johnny Depp, the PIRATES films themselves have become shallow and redundant, with no sense of storytelling whatsoever.  PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) is really the tale of two new characters:  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the dashing blacksmith who teamed up with Jack Sparrow in the first three PIRATES movies, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is still around, but he’s not really the main focus here.

The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson is pretty much geared for six year-olds. The humor doesn’t work either. The jokes are watered down and not edgy enough to earn many laughs. The film plays like a TRANSFORMERS movie under water.  Special effects galore, but no story to be found, which is a shame, because it wastes a character I like a lot, Captain Jack Sparrow. This fifth PIRATES film is flat-out awful.  Better to walk the plank than to sit through two plus hours of this sea tale.

4 GHOST IN THE SHELL

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Awful science fiction flick starring Scarlett Johansson, based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, which in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

Johansson plays the Major, a cyborg with a human brain. She’s surprisingly dull in the role. The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless. Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches, although the dazzling futuristic cityscape is not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).

A major disappointment, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies. Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

3 RINGS

RINGS was so incredibly dull and boring that it was really difficult to sit through this one. The biggest offender? The storytelling.  The screenplay by three writers, David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman really struggles to tell a story.  The movie gets off to such a disjointed start it’s laughable.

Director F.  Javier Gutierrez goes through the motions.  No memorable images or scares to be found.  Don’t bother with this one.  It’s a complete waste of time.

2 THE MUMMY

A disaster from start to finish, I can only hope this becomes a lost film. With THE MUMMY, Universal launched their “Dark Universe” series, an attempt to reimagine their monster movies of yesteryear as a sort of Marvel superhero spinoff. This is a huge mistake.  Someone needs to shut this concept down yesterday. The idea of re-booting these classic Universal monster movies as superhero action flicks is an insult to the original films.  If you are going to remake them, they need to be remade as horror movies, plain and simple.

The story is a complete mess and features Egyptian artifacts stolen by crusader knights, a secret spy organization run by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), a dashing treasure hunter named Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and oh yes, there is a mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).  This movie is so bad that not even the prospect of a female mummy can save it.

Things get so bad Tom Cruise’s character is actually refered to as a “young man.” Cruise’s presence here doesn’t do the movie any favors.  Not that it would have saved this movie, but a younger more dynamic actor would have made things a bit better. And poor Russell Crowe is forced to utter the worst lines in the movie as Dr. Jekyll.  His voice-over narration at the end of the film is so bad it sounds like an off-the-cuff ad lib about good vs. evil.  He gets to say such nonsense as “which side will win— we just don’t know.  He might be a hero.  He might be evil.”  This might be a real script. And as the Mummy, Ahmanet, Sofia Boutella just isn’t given enough to do to have any relevant impact.

Here’s hoping THE MUMMY is lights out for the Dark Universe.

1 THE BYE BYE MAN

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While 2017 was a great year for horror movies, it didn’t start out that way. Back in January we had to endure THE BYE BYE MAN.  It’s hard to believe that any movie in 2017 could be worse than THE MUMMY, but unbelievably, there was one: THE BYE BYE MAN.

First of all, what an awful title! Sounds like a children’s book. THE BYE BYE MAN has all the things that make a dreadful horror movie: bad acting, uninspired direction, and a weak script. There are some awkward shots by director Stacy Title, almost amateurish, during some scenes of dialogue, where the camera jumps from one character’s face to the other and often lingers there.  During key moments of the movie, the audience was laughing.  Not a good sign.  The script by Jonathen Penner was dull and redundant.  The characters were also weak, and I wasn’t interested in any of them.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a forgettable horror movie, and it’s my pick for the worst movie of the year.

And that wraps things up here for today.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

Star Wars poster

2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

rogue one poster

4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

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Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – Ambitious Sequel Overlong and Lifeless

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I guess I’m just not a fan of the BLADE RUNNER movies.

I was never all that into the original BLADE RUNNER (1982) film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? —- now, the novel I do like— that has a huge loyal following among science fiction fans.  The 1982 film just never moved me.

Now, here comes BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017),  starring Ryan Gosling and again Harrison Ford, a bigger and badder sequel to the 1982 movie, receiving high praise from both critics and fans alike.

I’ve finally been swayed, right?  This film is so good I’ve finally overcome my apathy for BLADE RUNNER, right?

Wrong.

Which is why I said, I guess I just don’t like these movies.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, the name given to officers who hunt down and “retire” (yes, that means “kill”) replicants, the artificial life forms that the powers that be fear because they are becoming too human.  His latest target is somewhat of an unusual one, and it leads him on a search for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner and main character in the first BLADE RUNNER movie, who’s been missing for thirty years.

Denis Villeneuve directed BLADE RUNNER 2049, which is another reason I’m surprised I didn’t like this one more than I did.  Villeneuve directed ARRIVAL (2016) and SICARIO (2015), two movies I liked a lot, and PRISONERS (2013), which was also very good.

There’s no shortage of ambition here.  This is a massive movie, filled with eye-popping special effects and a futuristic landscape that rivals the one created by Ridley Scott in the original.  All the technical stuff is there and works.

The story also has a lot to say.  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay, and it covers a lot of ground.  The best part of the Philip K. Dick novel is the exploration of the line between human and replicant, and the idea that a thinking sentient being, albeit an artificially created one, would fight for its own survival and not take kindly to the idea that it had an expiration date.  This has always been my favorite part of the BLADE RUNNER universe, and it’s more applicable today as great strides have been made in the field of artificial intelligence, and I believe that soon this concept will leave the realm of science fiction and become science fact.

And yet the problem I had with the original BLADE RUNNER, I have again here with BLADE RUNNER 2049, and that is the film has no soul.  It’s cold and lifeless, and its story, in spite of the scientific and ethical ramifications, fails to resonate.  Nothing that happens in this movie moved me one iota.

Which is too bad because a lot happens in this movie.  So much that it takes a whopping 2 hours and 43 minutes to tell its story.  That’s a long time to sit through a movie that doesn’t resonate, which is another reason I really did not enjoy BLADE RUNNER 2049.

There were parts I did like.  Its opening scene, for example, where “K” hunts down a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) is a good one.  The fight sequence between the two is a rough and violent as they get.

Nearly all the scenes between “K” and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) are not only watchable but for me were flat-out the best scenes in the movie, but their storyline is secondary to the main one in the film.  The scene in particular where technology enables Joi to enter the body of a prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so she can physically love “K” is probably the best scene in the film

And the first encounter between “K” and Rick Deckard is memorable, but it’s an hour and 40 minutes into the movie before this meeting takes place.

So, for me, pacing was certainly an issue, but the larger problem was that the story never grabbed me, the characters never won me over, and so I sat there for nearly three hours being visually stimulated but that was about it.  The story and characters fell flat for me and pretty much bored me to tears.

I like Ryan Gosling a lot, and he’s certainly good here, but “K” is just such dull boring character I just never found myself all that excited about him.

In a strange way, I actually enjoyed Harrison Ford more in this movie than in the original BLADE RUNNER.  It’s too bad he doesn’t show up until 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film.  He’s got some good lines, though, and his character is integral to the main plot and main mystery of this one.

But hands down the two best performances in BLADE RUNNER 2049 belong to two of the women actresses in the film.

First, there’s Ana de Armas as Joi, who happened to be my favorite character in the movie.  Joi is a holographic creation, and yet through de Armas’ performance, she’s more lifelike and possesses more genuine emotion than any other character in the movie.  She previously starred in WAR DOGS (2016) and HANDS OF STONE (2016),  a film about boxer Roberto Duran that was panned by critics but was one of my favorite movies that year.  Ana de Armas was excellent in HANDS OF STONE, and she’s better here in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Then there’s Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.  She’s the most effective villain in the movie.  It’s a dominating performance, one that I enjoyed more than Jared Leto’s.  He plays the main baddie in the film, Niander Wallace, and he just doesn’t resonate.  While I enjoyed Hoeks’s scenes, Leto’s scenes sadly put me to sleep.

Robin Wright has a couple of compelling moments as the stone cold police Lieutenant Joshi, and there are some other veteran actors on hand who add to the mix as well. There’s Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated actor for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) who we just saw in GOOD TIME (2017), and there’s Lennie James, who plays Morgan on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

And both Edward James Olmos and Sean Young reprise their roles from the original BLADE RUNNER, but their presence is reduced to nothing more than brief cameos.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is ambitious, cinematic, and loud, but it’s also cold, lifeless, and terribly long and dull, which is a shame because its main premise, the examination of the line between replicants and humans, and its exploration of the idea that artificially created replicants are so close to life that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between them and humans, which ultimately leads to the discussion of just what it is that constitutes life, is a thought-provoking idea that is worthy of an epic movie.

Unfortunately, BLADE RUNNER 2049 isn’t that movie.

And that’s because while technologically it scores points on all fronts, emotionally, it’s as barren as its futuristic landscape, filled with eye-popping visuals and ear-shattering noises, but without any life whatsoever.

The replicants deserve better.

—END—

 

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

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4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael